Challenging Social Hierarchies in Pickwick and North and South


"And I think, if this should be the end of it all, and if all I've been born for is just to work my heart and life away, and to sicken i' this dree place, wi' them mill noises in my ears for ever, until I could scream out for them to stop, and let me have a little piece of quiet — and wi' the fluff filling my lungs... I could go mad..." (Gaskell, 145)

This passionate exclamation by Bessie draws attention to issues surrounding child labor and the health of factory workers that became important during the Industrial Revolution. In his essay on child labor, David Cody reflects that "The displaced working classes, from seventeenth century on, took it for granted that a family would not be able to support itself if the children were not employed." He continues, "Many children worked 16 hour days under atrocious conditions, as their elders did." Workers who made their livings in iron and coal mines generally began to work at age five and died by the age of twenty-five. Bessie and her family represent the working class. The Pickwick Papers markedly omits any commentary on class for a majority of the book. The characters in Dickens' novel approach life from a reassuringly upper-class perspective. Sam Weller, Pickwick's servant, is so happy with his station in life that he gets himself put in jail to stay by his master. But the absence of any commentary on class is a commentary in itself. The perception of Dickens as a man who represented the people appears to have been an accurate one. This novel attempts to reassure the working and middle classes by creating a way to escape the trials and tribulations of everyday life and live momentarily in a world removed from reality.

The newly created system of social class arose in response to the decline of the feudal system. The old aristocracy became the new "upper class," owing their status to wealth they earned through commerce, industry and professions. Accustomed to having power, the upper classes fought to maintain control over the political system by keeping the working and middle classes out of the system. The newly formed middle classes, those who had recently earned their wealth through industrialization or through other recently created and less respected professions, organized to challenge the political process. They succeeded in passing the Reform Act of 1832 and abolishing the Corn Laws in 1846. These actions helped the middle classes to gain control of political, and later, cultural, power. The working classes, however, gained very little from the actions of the middle classes. The continuing feeling of powerlessness experienced by the working classes led to a feeling of bitterness directed at both the upper and middle classes. The lack of political power manifested itself in poor living and working conditions, leading to illness and death in many cases. Gaskell and Dickens's awareness of the poor conditions in which the lower classes lived and worked come through in these novels. Both authors clearly work to challenge the power dynamics that existed as a result of the creation of a class system.

Thus though Gaskell and Dickens both challenge social hierarchies, they take different approaches, in part, because they aimed at different audiences. Gaskell uses realism while Dickens, throughout most of the novel, creates a fantasy world. Gaskell seems to aim her writing at someone who is from Margaret's upper-middle class, established background. Margaret takes the readers by the hand and introduces them to the industrial world. As a upper-middle-class reader who is well established in society and skeptical of the new, self-made middle class, we relate to Margaret and her initial negative reactions to Thornton. Yet Gaskell lets us slowly be drawn into that world, introducing us to members of the working class and showing us a softer side of Thornton, so that by the end of the book, we have become thoroughly convinced that interactions among social classes are not so simple as we thought when we began the book.

Margaret returns to Helstone only to discover that her idealization of the countryside was simply that. She moves back to London and discovers that she actually misses the industrial town of Milton. When Henry Lennox returns from a visit to Milton, Margaret remarks that she "was only too willing to listen as long as he talked of Milton, though he had seen none of the people whom she more especially knew" (Gaskell, 507). And just as Margaret changes her view of Milton, Thornton changes his as well. Thornton comes to recognize that his adamant rejection of any cooperation between the factory workers and the factory owners only serves to create more problems. He announces to a party of business men,

I have arrived at the conviction that no mere institution, however wise, and however much thought may have been required to organize and arrange them, can attach class to class as they should be attached, unless the working out of such institutions bring the individuals of the different classes into actual personal contact. Such intercourse is the very breath of life. (Gaskell, 525)

Margaret, too, feels that interactions among the classes are "the very breath of life." She learns to love Milton and the way of life and the people that represent it, as does the upper-middle class reader. The reader sees the world through Margaret's eyes; and through Margaret's eyes, the reader is persuaded by Gaskell's re-creation of the social structure.

Dickens, however, uses a completely different technique in his challenge of the social structure. Although Dickens had a wide readership, a novel such as The Pickwick Papers seems especially aimed at the lower classes. Although everyone can feel a sense of comfort from reading about Pickwick and his friends, the stories are especially comfort those who constantly feel the pressures of daily living. Rather than recreate the images of suffering and depression that the lower classes see daily, Dickens's approach is to tell funny stories. In the introduction to The Pickwick Papers, Dickens explains that the novel was "designed for the introduction of diverting characters and incidents" (Dickens, 49). Social commentary does exist in the novel, in the form of the lawyers, Dodson and Fogg, and the prison, but this commentary is less blatant and harsh than in Gaskell's novel. Pickwick can still order a "little dining table, a roast leg of mutton and an enormous meat pie, with sundry dishes of vegetables, and pots of porter" while in prison (Dickens, 716). Thus even in prison Dickens creates the illusion of comfort. Yet by aiming the novel at a lower class audience, and by acknowledging the need for some form of diversion, Dickens too is challenging the strict divisions of class.


Victorian Web Overview Pickwick Papers North and South

Last modified 1996